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Zimbabwe, S. Africa break relations but keep trade links

As expected, the new black-ruled nation of Zimbabwe has broken diplomatic relations with South Africa, its white- ruled neighbor. The move puts Zimbabwe in step with the other 49 members of the Organization of African Unity, all of whom withhold full diplomatic recognition from South Africa in protest of the country's racial policies.

In acknowledgement of the continuing economic intertwining of the two countries, however, the governments will exchange trade missions.South Africa's trade representative will be in the Zimbabwe capital, Salisbury, while Zimbabwe will man an office in South Africa's largest city, Johannesburg. The announcement was made simultaneously by the two governments on Sept. 3.

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The action came as no surprise since Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe had earlier announced his intention to break off diplomatic links with South Africa.

Moreover, the move is expected to have little practical effect on relations between the two countries. For example, the South African trade mission still will be able to issue passports and visas to white Zimbabweans wishing to emigrate from the former British colony. Since the country became independent last April, some 1,000 whites a month have left the country, many for South Africa.

Continuing trade links between the two countries will work to mutual advantage. Zimbabwe is assured that vital rail and road transport routes through South Africa will remain open. Otherwise Zimbabwe's mining industry -- its leading earner of foreign exchange -- would be severely disrupted.

Continuation of trade also allows South Africa to keep Zimbabwe in an economic vise. If Zimbabwe should allow its territory to be used as a base by black nationalist guerrillas seeking to overthrow the white government here, Pretoria presumably would not hesitate to put an economic squeeze on its landlocked northern neighbor.

This underlines the peculiar nature of intergovernmental relations between South Africa and the black-ruled nations to the north. Pretoria publicly launched a "detente" exercise to open relations with black Africa some five years ago, during the reign of former Prime Minister John Vorster. That ended with unspectacular results, since few governments wished to be seen dealing openly with South Africa's white rulers.

Nevertheless, representatives of a number of black African countries are known to slip quietly in and out of Pretoria with surprising frequency. They come to purchase a wide variety of consumer and industrial goods, which South Africa usually can provide at prices far below that of US or European imports.

And South African food exports increasingly are filling a gap in Africa caused by declining agricultural production and boosts in population.

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Although officials here will not openly admit it, the South African government carefully cultivates these economic ties, to give itself more leverage over its African neighbors. Pretoria has, in fact, shown itself remarkably willing to trade with practically any African government, democratic or dictatorial.

There is only one quid pro quo: South Africa demands that none of its neighbors support what it calls "terrorists," meaning black guerrillas from South African liberation groups.

Even this is something of a polite fiction, however, as the white government here is aware that the banned African National Congress operates from a number of nearby countries.

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